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Women's Speech and Silence around Sex

Monday, July 1, 2019 - 07:00

This book is a bit more on the "literary criticism" and theoretical side than I'm generally looking for. It's a fascinating read, but somewhat less useful for research purposes. Although the text itself was of marginal usefulness for the Project, the bibliography offered a lot of interesting leads for new publications to review.

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Full citation: 

Blud, Victoria. 2017. The Unspeakable, Gender and Sexuality in Medieval Literature 1000-1400. D.S. Brewer, Cambridge. ISBN 978-1-84384-468-6

Blud's book is focused primarily on philosophy and literary criticism, and employs a lot of theory jargon. This is not a book about historic substance and data, but an analysis that plays with ideas, using Old and Middle English texts as a unifying theme.

The thematic focus is on speech (around sexuality) as action, and the consideration of both speaking and unspeakability as themes in medieval literature. The first part looks at the concept of sin, the suppression of speech, and the meanings of speech and silence, of expression and suppression, exemplified by the Old English life of Mary of Egypt and the Middle English Ancrene Wisse (a manual for anchorites). The act of confession is discussed in the context of "unspeakable" sins, with special consideration of the absence of women in discussions of sodomy.

Chapter 1: Ancrene Wisse  is an early 13th century book of advice for anchorites (women in religious seclusion). It demonstrates the contradictory attitudes towards "naming" sins in the context of confession when it advises not to be coy about describing your sins, but also not to be crude, e.g., no need to speak of "shameful body parts" by name. But at the same time, the (male) author is coy and reluctant to name the sins he warns the anchorites against. This reluctance to describe the "unspeakable" reflexively raises the specter of sodomy. Sexual sins are implied but not named when he warns against the influence of female visitors, or implies that lust can occur "without a man". But without specific naming, we're left to speculate whether masturbation or lesbianism is meant (or whether the author would have made any meaningful distinction between them).

Chapter 2: The chapter opens with a rehearsal of the case of John/Eleanor Rykener (a 14th century male-bodied person who engaged in prostitution as a woman). Rykener was accused of practicing "unspeakable vice" (vitium...nephandum) which seems an extension of the usual sense as Rykener's sexual activity followed heterosexual patterns (as a woman with men, and as a man with women).

The concept of "unspeakable sins" normally defaults to sodomy, but the association of "unspeakable" narrowly with same-sex acts was gradual, just as the concept of acts "against nature" was not uniquely associated with same-sex activity. At the root, "natural" sex acts were understood as procreative ones. But philosophical categories were mutable and the boundaries were contested. Was masturbation a type of hermaphroditism? (Because the individual took on both the active and passive roles?) Or was it a form of incest? (If the individual was viewed as inhabiting two distinct roles, because the relationship between the people in those roles--i.e., identity--was within a prohibited degree.) The label "sodomy" originally applied to any type of sex "against nature" and was a very broad category. Only gradually did the word shift to the very narrow sense of anal sex between men. This incoherence of meaning made the term both broadly applicable and evocative of the worst available interpretation.

The discussion turns to why the texts that are so preoccupied with same-sex acts so often entirely overlook sex between women. There is a sense that sex between women was simultaneously more shocking and less threatening than sex between men. Legal commentaries clearly included sex between women in the category of sodomy, even while paying little attention to it. The discussion includes the usual array of court cases involving sex between women: Katherina Hetzeldorfer, Thomasina and her concubine in 15th century London, as well as ambiguous cases that may involve intersex persons. Sex between women is in the awkward position of being stigmatized as sodomy but then erased from the default understanding of the term.

The next section of the chapter uses John Gower's version of Ovid's Iphis and Ianthe (in his Confessio Amantis) as an illustration of the "unspeakability" of love between women. Only the transformation of Iphis into a man at the end of the story solves the threat that the lovers might use the "thing which to them was all unknown" by enabling them to express love that does  not cause "offense". Within the story, love between women is contradictorily presented as entirely natural and "against nature". It is neither punished nor allowed to exist. The two women do not participate in "unspeakable acts" because their bodies are re-aligned to the "speakable" before the acts can be performed. This contradiction also exists in the parallel Latin and English texts in Gower's work, which tell somewhat different versions of the events. (The chapter now descends into philosophical discourse.)

The next example is the contest between the personifications of Nature (for the feminine side) and Nurture (for the masculine side) over rights to the character of Silence in the romance of that name. The text observes that this conflict expresses very "modern" ideas about gender and identity. (The philosophical discussion in this section is a bit more accessible and interesting than in other parts.) The character of Queen Eufeme is also noted: she has a lover with a male body (and identity) who presents publicly as female, and she desires Silence (who has a female body but presents as male). Is Eufeme intended to be read as queer? Or are we meant to read only the official "knowledge" of her object of desire, i.e., that in both cases Eufeme understands her desire to be heterosexual?

The frustration of the queen's desire leads to accusing Silence of an "unspeakable crime." Overtly, this would be the (false accusation of) sexual assault the queen claims, but could the unspeakability of the crime be meant to imply the same-sex nature of the (fictitious) encounter? The text again moves into philosohpical analysis of the nature of female desire and women's "voice".

Chapter 3: This chapter is a discussion of gender motifs in medieval werewolf stories and is outside the scope of the LHMP.

Chapter 4: This chapter treats the motif of the literal removal of a woman's tongue as relating to the removal of her power of speech, using the tale of Philomela. This material is also outside the scope of the LHMP.

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